Ben Elton's new book pokes fun at modern world's identity crisis

Satire provokes a nervous giggle at 'Big Brother' and social media manipulation

17 September 2019 - 13:16 By Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Witness: September 16 2019

Ben Elton has done so much as a performer, playwright, novelist and writer for TV (we can forgive him almost anything for giving us Blackadder) that his status is probably assured. But his output has been uneven, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Identity Crisis. However, there is a lot to like.

The action, set in a not-too-distant post-Brexit future, starts with the discovery of a body in a London park. The victim is a young woman, killed by a single blow to the back of the head.

The decent old-fashioned cop, Mick Matlock, who is in charge of the investigation, gets off on the wrong foot by saying publicly that she “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

That’s deemed politically incorrect, and needs a public grovel for “misspeaking”. And to compound his problems, particularly with pronouns, at the postmortem it is obvious that the young woman is endowed with a full set of male genitals.

Elton is soon having fun at the expense of gender politics, feminists of both the old and new persuasions, reality TV, the new religion of taking offence at anything and everything and, above all, social media and its sinister manipulation.

There’s a historian, determined to establish the proper historical role of women in armies, to the extent that she “proves” Alfred the Great was a woman. And Samuel Pepys is headed for the sex offenders’ register as a serial groper (which he undoubtedly was) despite the fact that he has been dead well over 300 years. Meanwhile, the body count rises.

The scariest part of Elton’s tale brings in Communication Sandwich, a company which, through algorithms (I’m still not sure I know what they are, but never mind) targets various sections of society on social media, fuels their bigotry and anger and persuades them to take up various positions.

It’s a kind of Big Brother scenario, and no doubt, when George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four there were readers who thought the whole thing just too far-fetched. I’m not suggesting that Elton is an Orwell – he’s not. But there’s enough in his latest satire of contemporary life to make the reader’s laughter a touch nervous.